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05/23/2008

The breast-laid plan

I probably shouldn't admit this, but you know what I'm looking forward to with this baby?  The possibility of giving up on breastfeeding.

Let me say at the outset that nothing would make me happier than a good nursing experience.  But nothing would make me sadder than the kind of experience I had with Charlie.  (Note to universe: I am saying that in a rhetorical senseI know there are worse things than ending up with a healthy, thriving baby who enjoyed the benefit of expressed breast milk for the first six months of his life.  I'll thank you not to kick my ass in new and unexpected ways just to show me who's in charge here because, hey, you know what?  I get it.)

Vibroboot Charlie was born at 10:22 PM.  Shortly after midnight I was out of recovery, in a hospital bed, tethered to a urinary catheter and a bag of mag, sheathed in vibrating boots to prevent blood clots, and asking rather incoherently for a breast pump.  After protesting that the baby, as yet unnamed, wouldn't be able to be given anything I made, the nurse decided it was easier to cooperate than argue, and wheeled it in.  And my long lactational nightmare began.

From the start I knew it would be a long time before I'd be able to do much for Charlie in the concrete sense.  If all I could do was make milk, then by God, make milk I would.  I did, pumping eight times daily for months.  And the milk came — by the femtoliter, at the start, and  eventually, with everything I would learn about pumping and the assistance of domperidone, five to seven ounces per pump.  Amazing how that seemed like a lot at the time.

For a lot of reasons — his reflux, my low supply, his screaming, my crying, the slow-dawning realization that I was well within my rights to stop torturing us both — Charlie and I never took to nursing.  So for months after we were home, I continued to pump.  At most feedings, Paul would give Charlie a bottle of expressed milk while I sat hunched miserably over the pump, giving my baby nourishment but utterly failing to enjoy it.

It wasn't until he was five months old that awareness began to creep in: There's something bad wrong with that.

By that time, Charlie had sailed through all of the temporary danger zones a preemie has to endure: the life-threatening possibility of NEC, the question of whether he would grow adequately, the first few months of life outside the more-or-less sterile confines of an isolette.  Providing him with breast milk was now a matter not of life or death, as it had initially seemed to me in my preemie panic, but of similar weight to the decision any mother makes when she considers feeding her healthy, full-term infant.  What about immunities?  Allergies?  Those critical six IQ points?  And what about suppressing ovulation so that I don't conceive again too quickly?  (Yeah, hey, what about that?)

And what about the manifold benefits to the entire family of a mother who actually likes feeding her baby?  Who gets more precious mood-stabilizing sleep?  Who isn't forever slipping away, from either a happy baby or a cranky one, a beleaguered husband or a resigned one, to pump?  Who cuddles her son close instead of holding him out at a distance, away from the breasts that had hurt nonstop since the midnight of his birth?

In a lot of ways I'm proud of what I did for Charlie.  I did it as much for myself, knowing that I'd punish myself for not making the effort if he didn't flourish.  But in other ways I'm sorry — sorry that I did it for so long, anyway.  It was right for me to quit, and I wish I'd done it sooner.

Before I even got pregnant this time, I made myself a promise.  If the baby comes early, I'll pump through any NICU time.  I'll pump until we have a chance to make a solid try at nursing.  And preemie or not, I will make a solid try at nursing.  But I will not make myself crazy.  In this one aspect of pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood, I am looking forward to this chance for a do-over.  I cannot wait not to make myself crazy.

(Now go get a load of Jiang Xiaojuan.)

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